Kristina Darling’s and Carol Guess’s X Marks the Dress: A Registry reviewed by Tyler Mills

 

guess-darling-cover_Kristina Darling and Carol Guess
X Marks the Dress: A Registry

Poetry, 102 pp. pbk
Gold Wake Press, 2013
ISBN: 0985919159
$15.95

Review by Tyler Mills

Whether or not we want to admit it, the wedding registry is perhaps one of the most ubiquitous markers of bourgeois desire. Wedding guests are invited to purchase gifts researched by the bride and the groom (and deemed by them to be the best) that signify a kind of life the couple can begin together—one that fulfills a department-store vision of what middle-class domesticity is and means. X Marks the Dress: A Registry, a collaborative collection of poetry by Kristina Marie Darling and Carol Guess, subverts this very cultural phenomenon by locating these objects within a nexus of desire that also includes the desire for the unattainable beloved (a beloved that appears both inside and outside of the heteronormative narrative). The result is a fascinating dialogue: between the authors, between traditional and experimental forms, and between desires that cannot be contained within the roles so often assigned to gender.

X Marks the Dress: A Registry opens with the registry itself, a prose-poem sequence in which the desired objects (such as the “3-Tierred Steamer,” “Springform Cake Pan,” and “Pearl-handled Letter Opener,” to name a few) become multi-layered meditations. The first poem of the collection, “3-Tierred Steamer,” begins, “My pink comes from before. Your house breathes faster. Tonight I’ll break your heart and leave you street corner easy: besotted, best beast” (9). (I cannot help but be briefly reminded of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons.)

The title of the first poem is especially ingenious because the registry sequence itself is “3-tierred”: three distinct speakers appear throughout these prose poems, each presenting three different multifaceted identities of desire. The bride’s voice is indicated in poem titles marked by curly braces (as in “{Champagne Flutes}”), the mistress’s voice is indicated in poem titles marked by brackets (as in “[Wedding Favor: Heart-shaped Bird Seed Cake]”), and the groom’s voice is not marked off at all. The husband poems appear “as normal,” or unmarked, such as in poems like “3-Tierred Steamer” and “Silk Flowers, Trussed.” This is a smart maneuver on two levels: 1) Because the groom’s voice is guised as a poetic norm, it takes the reader a moment to realize that it is in fact representing a specific kind of character and not a more universalized lyric speaker; and 2) As I’ll leave you to discover when you read the collection, the husband’s desire (and gender identity) is not normative in the slightest, which unsettles the three-tiered identities of desire represented in the first place. The fate of these three speakers unfolds as evocations: it is in the details of these beautifully rendered descriptive meditations, and their subtle interactions with one another, that suggests a narrative of competing desires.

Three appendices follow the registry poems that begin the collection, the first of which contains a sequence of footnotes without a text, a glossary without a manual, and an index of images without illustrations. Language in these inventive forms challenges and questions itself and its uses—promising an impossible fulfillment even in its experimentation. In “A History of Wedding Invitations: Glossary of terms,” the “bride” is defined as “A woman who chooses her attire without anticipating its inevitable interpretation. In the wedding album, her shoulders are bare and visible above the lace trimmings on a white silk dress” (41). The wedding celebration and the kind of life it promises (like the “x” that marks the dress itself) is articulated as a code of symbols one thinks one can purchase to escape.

The dress as an empty signifier manifests in a variety of ways throughout this collection, as do the objects of adornment that surround the ceremony itself. One powerful moment occurs in the footnotes section of the first appendix: “I had wanted to free myself from the endless parade of feminine embellishments. Within every window the same bouquet of pink roses. Now a vase lies shattered at my feet” (35). This footnote appears to mark the moment a bride realizes that the meaning of the details of the ceremony she designed cannot be controlled.

My favorite moment of the collection is in the interaction between the third and final section (Appendix C), titled “What Survived the House Fire,” and the registry sequence that begins the collection. “What Survived the House Fire” is an erasure of the very twenty-four registered items through which the three characters both emerge and dissolve. I found this interaction to exhibit the best kind of subtlety. It feels inevitable that we would return to these meditations as fragments of language. In this section, the words scatter down the page—which has become spacious, a field of remnants, of both the objects and the voices themselves:

           Silver         mirrors surround the

secret.

                She’s beautiful,               bridled     (88).

What I find remarkable about this collection is that even while these poems critique the cultural conventions of normative desire—through a variety of inventive forms—the language of these poetic experiments also acknowledges the way that queerness has been banished from such forms of ceremony. It is the objects of the wedding ceremony themselves that unlock the fluidity of gender identity and sexual desire within this narrative. The following registry poem, “23-Piece Knife Set With Block,” spoken by the husband (and quoted in full) excels as this kind of multiplicity:

How do you sever a lie from the life it’s leading? I’m tired of pretending to test drive cars. Pretending’s a job, tang of snake oil underneath my tongue. Our health insurance runs out in two weeks. You can’t get sick, can’t see a dentist, can’t look at the world through rose-colored glasses because glasses, Sweetheart, cost the sky. We’ll manage catastrophic for a while, but first I have to sit you down, carve a wife from a block of ice. I’m tired of boxers and motor oil. While you’re off shopping I change into my favorite dress and sway to love songs in our bedroom mirror. The woman I am would tell you the truth (21).

Darling’s and Guess’s X Marks the Dress: A Registry marks desire—to consume the fantasy of the ceremony that promises the beloved—as an ever-present ache. This desire, the “X” that closes the final erasure of the book, is emptied once it fulfilled, allowing the symbols that one wants to mark with it to remain uncontrolled, even fallible. As we learn in the footnote to this final “X” that closes the book, “Even then, the white lace trim had begun to unravel” (96).

 


 

Tyler Mills is the author of Tongue Lyre, winner of the 2011 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award (SIU Press 2013). Her poetry has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Blackbird, the Believer, and the Boston Review, and her essays have appeared in the Robert Frost Review and the Writer’s Chronicle. She has been the recipient of a work-study scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference and an artist grant from the Vermont Studio Center. She lives in Chicago.